Sunday, October 30, 2005

Wherever you go

…..there you are. Whether you live in Paris or Perkasie, the Far East or the Midwest, life acquires a certain sameness. The most extraordinary things become routine in time as we adapt to them. The French have a saying for it" Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose."
We have now hit the three-month mark of our sojourn in Hanoi. Friends and relatives ask about unusual foods, amazing sights and interesting people that we have encountered, but living in a place is much more about routine.
On a vacation, one tends to cram as much "living" into each day as is possible, dashing from market to museum to sidewalk cafés, restaurants and cultural shows. It is necessary to sample the local food, take many photographs and buy things to remind us where we have been.
When living somewhere one proceeds at a different pace, knowing that the Leaning Tower and Sphinx are not going anywhere and neither are you. In assessing the first three months, we note the places we have not visited and the things we have not yet accomplished.
Sunday we did visit the Museum of History as there is an exhibit on the Ly and Tran Dynasties that will only be there until December. It gave us some insight into Vietnam’s long history and was an enjoyable interlude. We followed it up with brunch at the Sol Melia Hotel, an indulgence that we enjoy about one Sunday a month. They have a variety of incredibly good items that change often so that you can never be bored. Gyros made to order just like at a New York pushcart were among the features this week.
Today, it is back to normal as Carol goes off to school, Ira runs over to Vine to meet with the other Sales and Marketing reps, then does a bit of shopping, studies Vietnamese, and reworks his legal lessons(perhaps a future blog will deal with that!). Then it will be off to the fitness center and home to make dinner, then some TV and so to bed.
What will the next three months bring? Our new season resolutions include visiting museums we have not yet seen, playing our instruments, inviting the Queen to tea, well there is no Queen so we will just skip that one and keep going. Up close, the life here is much as it was in Newtown, PA. Viewed from farther back it is exotic, interesting, challenging and quite memorable.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

A Night at the Opera

While the cultural scene here is certainly not New York or Paris, the beautiful Opera House has a large number of events, mainly symphony concerts by the three orchestras of Hanoi.

We had a special treat on Friday when the house was filled with operatic music, including a fully staged performance of I Pagliacci which was quite enjoyable. the first half of the evening featured several Vietnamese opera singers who entertained with a variety of arias and ensembles. Some are likely on the verge of having respectable international careers. Ira wrote a short review of the opera which follows this brief intro.

I Pagliacci in Hanoi

Fully staged opera performances do not occur every day in Hanoi’s beautifully restored Opera House. In fact, the last performance was thirty years ago. At least it was until the Concordia Foundation staged two performances of "I Pagliacci," during the last week of October. London based Concordia Foundation, founded and run by Soprano Gillian Humphreys, gives performances that offer young artists an opportunity to perform before large audiences.
A performance that marries soloists from the UK with a Vietnamese orchestra and chorus is a difficult undertaking. There were the odd moments when the orchestra was not following the singers, but Music Director Graham Sutcliffe kept the wheels from falling off and coaxed a strong sound from the group.
John Rawnsley was a properly malevolent Tonio, with just the right amount of buffoonery. After sounding slightly strained at the beginning of the prologue, he warmed up and was equal to the role. He left no doubt as to who was the true villain of the piece.
Bradley Daley has a nice, unforced tenor sound, quite suited to the role of Canio. He performed vesti la giubba without any of the histrionics so often associated with the part, neither laughing maniacally nor sobbing as the stage director had him exit at the end of the aria, not as moving as having a fadeout as he sits in contemplation.
Fiona Hammacott, the young Nedda, can turn a cartwheel, as she demonstrates in Act 1. More importantly, she sings well and is a convincing actress, especially in the love scene with Silvio, a very strong baritone, John Cleverton.
The Vietnamese National Opera and Ballet Chorus, The Hanoi International Choir and Children’s Chorus performed admirably, especially considering that Italian is, at best, their third language. The sound was strong, they were for the most part able to stay with the orchestra and their stage business was delightful.
Seeing supertitles in Vietnamese, with all of the requisite diacritical marks, is a bit strange as one imagines how Pagliacci would sound if it were done in the language of the people.
The sets, by Cong Hoan, simply painted representations of a village were sufficient to evoke Italy. The principals’ costumes were quite flamboyant, like the traveling troupe they portrayed, while the choristers were dressed in more subdued clothing of an indeterminate period. In an interesting twist, the final line was shared as Canio said "La comedia" and Tonio responded with "e finita!"
Overall, the production and, most particularly the music were certainly at the level of most small American regional companies and it is to be hoped that thirty more years will not elapse before the next opera performance in Hanoi.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Skeeters am a hummin'

We have no reason to believe that we are any more squeamish or picky than others. Well, actually, we KNOW we are not fond of creatures who visit us in the night. the presence of mosquito netting is never a good sign! Many of you probably find the idea of netting to be romantic and exotic...We feel that, if there were no mosquitoes, there would be no netting. Carol had a viral infection so was taking an antibiotic. The doctor felt that it might not be advisable to take malaria medicine at the same time, so we just bundled up(even in the 90+ degree heat) and hoped for the best.

Somehow, even with long sleeves and the infamous netting, we did get a few bites. So far, we haven't had high fever or other signs of malaria, so probably we are OK.

If you go to Laos, we recommend malaria medication and plenty of Deet.

Friday, October 21, 2005

There is a reason

Why more people travel to Paris, New York and Rome than visit Peoria or Laos. We probably wouldn't travel halfway around the world just to go to Laos, but as we are already in the neighborhood, it seemed right to spend a few days in the only place in Southeast Asia where we had not yet been.

Laos is a small, poor nation that is landlocked, bordering on Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. It has similar language and religion to Thailand and a local cuisine that is pleasant, if not world class.

We decided to spend our time in Luang Prabang, the ancient capital and a resort area, with a stopoff in Vientiane, the present capital.

The flight from Hanoi-Vientiane is under an hour and the connection to Luang Prabang(in a prop plane!) is even shorter. Luang Prabang has a certain charm. It reminded us a bit of Ubud, the craft center of Bali, or New Hope, PA. Nearly every storefront is either a travel agent promising exciting treks to visit the hill tribes or to cruise the Mekong or ride elephants. Strange than in the "Land of a Million Elephants," we saw a grand total of zero.

There are many souvenir shops and the Lao textiles are quite nice, if a bit pricey. They know what they have and don't give it away.

We opted to change hotels as the one where we were booked was about twenty minutes from town over a rough, dusty road. Fortunately, their sister hotel, right in the center of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, was able to accommodate us without trouble. Location truly is everything, as the move enabled us to go out for a couple of hours, then come back to freshen up. It was rather hot, so this proved important in enabling us to see the sights. We first visited the Museum, which is located in the former Royal Palace. Laos now has no king but is a Peoples Democratic Republic(You figure it out). The museum was quite interesting, housing a large number of artifacts, including the gifts from many nations.

Luang Prabang is on two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan. We walked around town, through the market where freshly caught river fish were on display. In the afternoon we visited a Wat, or buddhist temple. As there was a festival going on, the monks were occupied in building replicas of the longboats that are used in ceremonies.

We were able to enjoy a Lao dance and cultural show, held in a theater attached to the museum. They have their own music and instruments which are similar to those of Thailand and Vietnam in many ways.

In Vientiane, we stayed at the Settha Palace, one of those great old grand hotels that are found throughout Southeast Asia. The room was quite comfortable and the service great. the hotel also has a London taxi, that they have, for some reason, painted green. There is a picture above, together with one of a tuk-tuk, an open sort of vehicle that runs on a sort of lawnmower engine. Having experienced tuk-tuks in Bangkok we opted for the elegant and surprisingly affordable car!

Vientiane has rather limited "must sees" so after visiting the Thatluang Stupa(the golden dome in the picture), the monument, modeled on the Arc de Triomphe, and a couple of major wats(Buddhist temples), we were ready for the pool and then for dinner at a local Lao restaurant that Carol spotted from the car. It turned out to be lovely and the food more than passable. Lao cuisine is somewhat spicy, resembling Thai, but with fish more in evidence.

We had hoped to visit the National Museum but found it closed for the Boat Festival, so we contented ourselves with walking down to the Mekong(it seems to be everywhere, doesn't it?) and pushing through the throngs of Vientianians(?) who were enjoying a sort of carnival. Since the view of the boat races was blocked, we mingled for a time, then went back to pack for the short flight home to Hanoi.

We had a short enjoyable visit in this sleepy little country, close geographically but not in any other way to busy Vietnam.

Note-Laos 5 million people/ Vietnam 83 million!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

First Visitor and Water Puppets

Our first visitor was Steve Fisher, the director of the Keystone Boychoir and a friend of one of Carol's former colleagues, Linda Deis. He was prospecting for venues for the boychoir's annual summer trip. We decided to take him first to a very traditional Vietnamese buffet. The restaurant Sen(Lotus) has a dazzling array of fresh items, most made to order. There are some chafing dishes, but there are a variety of stations, including a grill turning out beef, shrimp, chicken(well cooked, don't worry) and some tiny scallops that were surprisingly easy to eat. The clientele is primarily Vietnamese, with a number of large family groups. This attests to the authenticity of the cuisine, as well as the upward mobility that is evident in Hanoi. Of course at 100,000 dong(about $6.25US) it is quite reasonable to the Western wallet.

Ira had an errand in town early in the day and stopped by the theater to buy the water puppet tickets. This turned out to be fortuitous as the show was at 9:15, rather than 8:00.

The water puppets are unique to Vietnam. They originated when the farmers used the flooded rice fields to entertain their children with puppets that were manipulated on dowels. The tradition continues in a theater, with the puppeteers stationed behind a curtain. The puppets are remarkably lifelike! They depict a variety of farmers, fishermen, animals and also fairies and dragons. The puppets can jump, swim, and even breathe fire. The stage band plays traditional Vietnamese instruments and also narrates the action with songs and chants.

This is probably the #1 attraction for tourists and, if you see nothing else in Hanoi, don't miss this. We have been several times and never tire of it. Well, if we have too many visitors, we might just send them and hang out at a bar.

Steve loved the puppets and the restaurant and, after taking a half day tour the next day, he was sold on Hanoi as a place for his choir to perform. He bought several souvenir puppets for his nieces and, we suspect, for himself.

UN Day

On Friday, October 14, Carol's school, the United Nations International School of Hanoi, celebrated UN Day. Each student, teacher and staff member dressed in his or her native costume and carried the national flag during the ceremony. After speeches, dance and jazz band performances, everyone was treated to ethnic food made by the parents. The afternoon was devoted to participating in games from various countries. It was a wonderful way to introduce the very welcome Autumn Break which lasts for one week. We are spending several days of the break in Laos, the tiny, landlocked country that borders Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. We hope to post some interesting things about Lao food, culture and scenery when we return.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

We Aren't in Kansas Anymore

We are so accustomed to our Internet connection, Skype phoning(when it works and both parties can actually hear each other), hot water, good lighting and ready availability of food, wine and toilet paper, that we sometimes forget that we are in a developing nation.

Last night, we were gently reminded that Vietnam is not the US, and some things are just different.

We decided to go to a restaurant we had seen in a newspaper review, Moon River and we didn't measure to see if it was, in fact, "wider than a mile." It is located way outside the city proper and has only a series of set menus, from which you select by email so that they are ready when you arrive. They do accept credit cards, but charge you the 3% bank fee, so we thought we'd go with cash. Caveat: sometimes it is better just to pay the $2(anecdote supplied upon request).

Ira went to the conveniently located ATM that accepts our bank card to get a couple of million dong(Those of you who have been following know that is only about $125). Oh no! Machine "temporarily" unavailable. What to do? Take a taxi to a different ATM? It's not real expensive but would cost a few bucks plus the time. Use credit card to withdraw from a different ATM? costs $5 minimum plus whatever the machine charges. Oh, right! We keep some dollars in our safe. Just bring a $100 and get change at the restaurant in dong to keep us going for the rest of the week.

We got a taxi in front of the hotel and he knew where Moon River was, or said he did which is the same thing, isn't it? We thought we'd be taking a certain bridge but now we know that bridge is not for cars as we drove to a different river crossing. The trip was rather longer than we had expected and the roads got progressively less paved as we went into the hinterlands. Old habits die hard and we can't help gasping as the meter goes ever higher, even though it is only in 1000 dong increments.

When we finally arrived, having to traverse the final 50 m on foot as the car couldn't negotiate the narrow lane, we were greeted warmly and ushered into a magnificent refurbished complex that reminded us of some of the temples and pagodas we had visited.

On the way over, Carol opined that we would be the only two guests. "On a Saturday night?"
Well we'll see when we are seated. Our host asked if we would like to eat in the courtyard and we agreed that would be nice, so he showed us to a solitary table that had been set up under the trees. We took a brief walk through the other buildings, observing the beautiful artifacts that filled the space. We observed some butterflies fluttering above our heads, or so we thought. "Con doi?" asked Ira...Yes! Bats, but not like European bats, these eat mosquitoes and not your blood. Well, that's a relief, so let's get outside and eat.

Our menu included green papaya salad, prawn and mushroom soup, spring rolls, barramundi, giant prawns, beef with coconut milk sauce, mixed vegetables and che, a sort of liquid pudding. Service was fine, as we were indeed the only guests, unless a large group ate really early and sneaked out by boat, or some others may eat fashionably late.

When it came time to pay, Ira produced the $100 and agreed to accept change in dong. Unlike in Europe, exchange rates are uniform whether at banks, hotels, or even restaurants so you never get ripped off. The only problem was that they had no change except for some 500,000 dong notes. The host ran out and borrowed money from the staff and the neighbors. It took some doing, but he scraped up just enough. In retrospect, the credit card charge would only have been about $2. Next time we will know better. Regardless, it was great being like royalty with our own private restaurant. We may not become regulars, but we will likely return.

A few more random notes on how we know we are in a different country. Even published schedules change, sometimes more than once. An Opera Gala was advertised on one set of dates, then changed to another without notice, then when we were checking their website, we noticed it had been changed again! Appointments are also rather loose. Ira goes to a weekly sales meeting and is invariably the only one present ten minutes after it was to have started. He is often informed of big events with short notice. "Mr. Ira can you attend the tasting at 4 pm today?"

Still, it is a charming place and if it were the same as the place we left, why would we have left? Today, it is our time to sample Hanoi bagels. Bloggingly yours, Ira and Carol